Wintry sounds: Music to play on a snowy day

Winter Landscape
Winter landscape
File Photo

Happy New Year! We made it. The holidays are over and it's back to...well, everything. Why not put the grind on hold for a little longer and enjoy the stillness of winter?

Maybe for you winter calls to mind sounds of bells, choirs ringing, or brass ensembles; for me, winter music rises from quietness. Here are six pieces to help fill the long nights and short days. Some are dark and some sparkling but all, in some way, are winter.

Maurice Ravel, String Quartet in F

Ravel was a master of evoking mood through sonority and texture. This string quartet sounds like a walk in a frozen woods. Pentatonicism is a blanket of snow covering everything — you hear sounds of shivering, tree branches creaking, ice melting. In the third movement, the shuddering tremolos are warmed by bittersweet chords. The strings summon an ancient, icy forest.

Charles Ives, Three Places in New England, Movement 3 "Housatonic at Stockbridge"

Charles Ives was that rare composer who could write chromatic music that's accessible to the non-geek listener. He was an early "mash-up" artist, quoting and paraphrasing local folk tunes in an avant-garde style. This final movement depicts Stockbridge, Massachusetts: there's mist coming off the river, and near the end a "thundersnow" is swirling.

Frederic Chopin, Etude Op. 25, No. 1

This etude evokes images of ice skating. The constant flow of arpeggios demands a light touch from the pianist, just as it takes a nimble skater to leap and spin on ice. Robert Schumann dubbed the etude "Aeolian Harp" referring to the musical instrument played by the wind.

Einojuhani Rautavaara, Cantus Arcticus Op. 61: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra

Rautavaara wrote this behemoth in 1972 after starting to experiment with electronics. He recorded birds in the Arctic Circle and in his native Finland, and incorporated their voices into the orchestral patchwork. Each movement bears a title that exudes gray skies and freezing temperatures: "Bog," "Melancholy," and "Swans Migrating." You can almost see the Northern Lights while listening.

Glenn Kotche, "Cheju"

Those days where it's so still it feels like it's going to snow any second...that's the kind of day to listen to Glenn Kotche. The whole album Introducing is minimalist and starkly beautiful, but listen especially to "Cheju," icicles dripping and cracking.

Jon Brion, "Phone Call" from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine is one of those stunning examples of how music exalts a story on-screen. Though every track from Brion's score seems to epitomize the scene it fills, "Phone Call" has a particular transcendence. It plays during the scene where Joel and Clementine go out on the frozen Charles River. That image of them lying on the ice, looking up at the winter sky, is like a painting. The scene and the music conjure that free-yet-wistful feeling you get around someone you're falling for.

Jessie Rothwell is a writer and music geek who curates performances in people's living rooms. She's currently based in Washington, D.C..

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